In April 1986, I interviewed Larry Cohen for the London listings magazine Time Out to coincide with the UK release of The Stuff. We got on well, but I now find it incredible that I didn’t ask him about Bone or his Blaxploitation films, God Told Me To, The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover or Q, all of which I had seen. Or perhaps I did ask about them but didn’t have space to include the results. Or perhaps my editors weren’t interested in Cohen’s earlier films. Who knows. All I can say now is I probably had my reasons.
It’s perhaps also worth noting that while the video industry was beginning to take off in the mid 1980s, the selection of titles on offer was limited, there was no mail order by internet to enable you to track them down, and the only way to have seen most of Cohen’s films would have been in London repertory cinemas. Maybe it was assumed that very few Time Out readers would have been familiar with his work.
The central character in Larry Cohen’s Special Effects is a demented film director who does kinky things with long-stemmed roses and puts on white editors’ gloves to strangle somebody with a length of film. Cohen did not base this character on himself. He is not like that at all. Cohen is clean-cut, preppy, pragmatic and, despite being the same person who once told someone from Fangoria to fuck off, very friendly. He is pushing 50 but looks decades younger.
The Special Effects character was “not based on anybody I know personally, but on a whole type of director, you know, of the De Palma, Scorsese, er… what’s the name of that guy who did Heaven’s Gate? Cimino, that school of guy. Italian-American directors, not too physically gorgeous in their own right. I used to say these guys wouldn’t be able to get a date unless they were movie directors.”
Cohen, one feels, would get dates even if he were a barrow boy. His movies are a world away from the self-referential homage-ridden remodellings of the movie brats. His movies are a world away from anything else in the world of movies. They are off the wall, through the window and up the garden path. This can occasionally be confusing for the distributors and marketing people, who prefer to slot films into genres. The Stuff, the jaw-wrenching story of an active, addictive dairy dessert which attempts to take over America, didn’t do too well at the US box-office.
The original marketing concept was to bombard the American public with an ad campaign for the product – No calories! Doesn’t need refrigeration!! Tastes better than ice-cream!!! – before it was even aware of the movie. TV jingles, billboards, the whole caboodle. But of course that would have cost far too much, so The Stuff eventually went out under the straight horror label, with the usual sort of trailer. “It isn’t a horror picture,” says Cohen. “It’s a comedy, a low-key comedy. It’s not a hit-people-in-the-face-with-food-and-expose-oneself kind of comedy. I think that it’ll appeal to the British sense of humour, anyway.” There are several scenes in The Stuff where people get hit in the face by the eponymous gloop, though no-one could describe the effect as slapstick, or even splatstick.
The embryo of all this stuff sprang from Cohen’s brain when he got to wondering about, “all those people eating chocolate milk shakes and not knowing what’s in them. They’ll buy anything that’s advertised on television.” So he made it into a monster movie. “But instead of being a monster that comes into your house after you, it’s one that you go out and buy and bring home, and you consume it of your own free will. You’re a willing collaborator in your own destruction.”
Backbone of The Stuff is Michael Moriarty, playing the straight leading man role in a manner that is anything but straighforward. He is “Mo” Rutherford, the smooth-talking, deceptively dumb-seeming (“No-one is as dumb as I appear to be”) Southerner who cracks the secret of the dairy dessert wide open. “I’ve enjoyed working with him,” says Cohen, “and I think he does his best work for me. He did a picture for Clint Eastwood – Pale Rider – but Michael’s so subdued in other people’s pictures and so full of energy in mine. He’s peppier.”
Cohen’s working method with Moriarty is to stand just out of camera and yell out improvisatory suggestions, which he then edits out of the final soundtrack. “Moriarty is like a guy who’s on stage – he’s juggling apples and oranges, and I throw a meat cleaver in and he manages to get it into the act.” He will be appearing in Cohen’s next movie also. Island of the Alive is a sequel to the sequel of It’s Alive! In this latest addition to the killer baby cycle, the infants are marooned on a desert island and get the measles. “Boy! You don’t want to be around an It’s Alive! baby when it’s got the measles,” says Cohen. “You wouldn’t want to be a paediatrician. There’s lots of fun in the picture, but it’s also got some… heartrending drama.”
I tell Cohen I hate babies. “You hate babies? Well, you should like the picture if you don’t like babies. I’ve never found anyone before that admitted they didn’t like them, but they are nasty little things, aren’t they? Sloppy little things, too. Noisy, demanding. I always noticed that babies, when they get cranky, get very, very violent in their little cribs. And I thought boy! if a baby was ever gigantic and strong it’d be really dangerous, because they have so much pent-up anger and frustration.”
After Island of the Alive, Cohen will be working on Return to Salem’s Lot. “Actually I went to Warner Brothers and said I’d like to do Exorcist Part 3 and they said, ‘We can’t give you that, but we can give you Return to Salem’s Lot because we have a deal that we can do a sequel to Salem’s Lot if we give Stephen King a hundred thousand dollars.’ I’m basically just using the title.”
Cohen is also trying to find the finance for a script he has written about the fitness craze in America. It’s called Fit to Kill. “I read an article on the plane on the way over,” he says, “that said the Medical Association have come up with this thing that if you exercise every day for one hour, you’ll add a year to your life. I don’t know if it’s worth it. After a period of time you’ve probably blown the year anyway coming and going to the gym and smelling bad and all that stuff.”
Larry Cohen lives in New York and has lots of children.
- King B: Larry Cohen’s outrageous films were never going to win Oscars – and that’s the way he likes it (independent.co.uk)
- It’s Alive – 1974 (dezisdead.wordpress.com)